Book Summary – The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

Before learning to learn anything I thought that first I need to evaluate my capabilities. But if there a way to measure my brain functioning and to estimate my potential?

To start with something, I decided to first figure out how my brain actually functions. So last week I’ve read a book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. Doidge is an experienced psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who explains the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, the ability of brain to change its own structure and function in response to mental experience.

That might sound obvious, but it turns out our brains never stop learning. They are able to restructure themselves in response to input even from the simplest tools, such as a blind man’s cane. Even if we stop learning or doing something, parts of the brain responsible for the corresponding knowledge or skills get filled with information about other skills and knowledge that we continue using.

However, Doidge says in his book that the continuous changes in our brain take place only when we have endless interest in what we’re doing. But at the same time, the more you do something, the more interesting it gets for you. Thus, don’t expect extraordinary results in anything what you do if you don’t have proper motivation for that.

By the way, the reason for this phenomena is chemically simple: dopamine (the happiness hormone) helps to create and strengthen new neuron connections. This is how success inspires us to achieve more.

So it is completely destructive to believe that you’re getting older, your brains are no longer the same as before, you’re not capable of solving the tasks you found easy before and so on. (This is what I was afraid of when trying to understand why I was unwilling to write anymore).

So what Norman Doidge advises for keeping a brain in a good shape?

  • Learning anything new helps creating new neurons and neuron connections among old neurons
  • The more education we have, the more socially and physically active we are, and the more we participate in mentally stimulating activities, the less likely we are to get Alzheimer’s disease or dementia
  • Physical activity is necessary at least because it supplies oxygen to brain
  • Nothing speeds brain atrophy more than being immobilized in the same environment; the monotony undermines our dopamine and attentional systems crucial to maintaining brain plasticity
  • Avoid interacting with electronic media — it is proved that there is a connection between the electronic media and the rise of attention deficit traits
  • Practice meditation: people who meditate have a thicker insula, a part of the cortex activated by paying close attention

And a few interesting highlights from the book:

  • To become an extraordinary pro in anything one needs not less than 10 years.
  • Learning poems by heart improves aural memory
  • Handwriting probably strengthens motor capacities and thus adds speed and fluency to reading and speaking
  • Having a sharp mind helps the brain to compensate severe injuries

After reading this book I was surprised to feel myself inspired to look for some tools that might help improve my brain abilities. And you know what, I found one — it’s the service. I’ll explain the results of using it in my next post.

P.S.: In his book Norman Doidge mentions Betty Edwards (and her book Drawing on the right side of the brain, 1979), where she explains how to wake up the creative part of a personality. In one of the examples she forced students to draw the copy of Picasso’s picture hanging upside down. This way the students were unable to comprehend the sense of the image and were focused on the technique and line drawing. Now I quite curious, in what similar ways can other creative tasks be done?

Why learn to learn

So why I decided to start with learning to learn? Haven’t I figured out how to learn after 17 years of studying at school and university?

The right question is actually: when and why one decides that the previously established learning approaches are the most effective?

Also, imagine you decided that you don’t read enough, can’t focus on stuff and don’t feel yourself productive overall. In this case, how can you learn that skills if the learning patterns require that same skills to be applied?

In other words, being barely able to focus and be productive in what you’re learning makes the learning process itself ineffective and not motivating to achieve set goals.

That’s why I’m going to review the ways we are learning new skills and getting knowledge. Then, many questions arise:

1. What’s the most effective ways for learning? How to figure out the best learning curve tailored for one’s personality?

2. What are our limitations? How far we can go with learning anything new?

3. Is taking notes necessary? How they should be taken? Is reading better than listening?

4. Why new information fades away over time and how to avoid it?

5. What other things influence the effectiveness of learning? How exactly important are sleeping, doing sports, diets?

6. Are motivation and interest necessary to achieve better results? Can and should we artificially produce them?

7. Is there a way to estimate and tune up our mind capabilities? What it’s like to be a genius, is it a skill or innate intelligence?

8. Is there something wrong with my life that I don´t know about and that forces me to accept my mental decline and do something with it?

Knowing that should help to visualize the ways we learn new skills and motivate ourselves to do it in a long-term perspective.

P.S.: I had a talk recently with a friend of mine. We suddenly noticed we are… not so young anymore :). Having established job, family, connections and fields of interests, we are no longer so capable as in our early 20’s: we can’t sleep less, learn quickly, be perfectionists. Staying in our comfort zone we doom ourselves not to improve over time but rather to get older and degrade. To prevent this trend, we need to learn how to keep our brains tuned up. To learn how we learn, in other words.


For years I’ve been positioning myself as a writer and a copywriter. People contacted me and asked to write different kinds of texts. I generated ad copies, invitations, SEO content, functional design documents and so many more that it became hard to recall all of my assignments at once.

Most of the time I was excited that my skills are highly appraised and well paid. In fact, I built a career on my writing talents without even having a typical blog or promoting my site or social accounts. The people I’ve met for the last 5 years have been providing me with enough amount of work to remain in business and sharpen my skills. So I continued improving as a copywriter even when I started working as a technical writer, not only creating texts for the games, but designing the latter almost from scratch.

But a few months ago I realized that my inner writing tool had simply… broken.

My previous success was built on a simple fact that before I was driven by the feeling of being uncomfortable. Living with my parents, I was dreaming about renting an apartment. That dream has come true. Then I wanted to be able to travel, have nicer hardware, make my family happier with nice presents. I got all of that as well.

Now it looks like I have built a comfort zone of my own that is too big to try to go out of it. I have an interesting job, a wonderful family, reliable friends, and a home with the telly and a kitten. That’s merely enough for happy… existence.

So I’ve started losing my ability to focus on other things that interested me. I was literally forcing myself to read books, cope with my projects and perform writing assignments I thought should be interesting for me. My motivation and aspiration for perfect results had been vanishing. As a result, I had often been breaking my promises and eventually started finding myself always guilty or even avoiding people that I had common business with.

That sounds unacceptable, doesn’t it? These thoughts had resulted in my inability to respect myself anymore. But if I don’t respect myself, how can I expect anybody else to respect me? So I figured out that there is nothing to fix anymore. Only total rebooting may help.

Putting aside all of my inner problems I started wondering how to get back to normal life: be productive, do more, live intentionally and improve continually. And the first step that I see in this direction is to learn how to… learn.

So, this is where it all starts from the scratch now.